Brian Castro

was born in Hong Kong in 1950 and came to Australia in 1961. He has worked in Australia, France and Hong Kong as teacher and writer, and was literary reviewer for Asiaweek magazine. His novels have won a number of major literary awards, starting with his first, Birds of Passage (1983), a "powerful and haunting story of an Australian Chinese on collision course with the past". A master of shifts in time, place and genre, his novels move between settings as diverse as Vienna, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New South Wales or the deck of a whaling ship, subverting a variety of literary genres in the process. His latest books are After China (1993), Drift (1995), Stepper (1997), a tale of erotic love and espionage set in 1930s Japan. Brian Castro now lives in Melbourne and is working on a fictional autobiography.
Stepper (part)

Tokyo, 1994.

It was a long flight from Sydney and my heart is beating strangely ... the plane shuddering too much and I, drifting in and out of bad movies thinking about Victor Stepper. In the Narita terminal, yellow chrysanthemums cascade between the escalators. Rub my shoe against the back of my trousers. A return was always a loss. Trawling the past but disgorging images of Australia instead and of my compatriots, interned fifty years ago, breaking rock in a country town hot and hazy with dust, watching steel rails bend toward the hills and hearing galahs creaking like gibbets on frosty mornings. The dead, too, dream of Fuji, lying silently in their graves until old kimonoed women fresh off tourist buses come to speak to them in fragrant whispers of chirring Japanese. I remember those heat-filled empty afternoons, clouds of midges hanging motionless above the plum blossoms and the thunder beyond.
And then the dead would have broken out, running in suicidal lines to heed the call to an unfinished project, bringing the ghostly bayonet to my peritoneum.
Let me tear off my shirt.
My name is Isaku, Ishigo. I am back in Tokyo. It´s my seventy-fifth birthday.
Born in the year of the rabbit. I am supposed to be placid and conversative and terribly fortunate. But in the corridor between my head and my heart there is chaos. Things have lately become unmanageable. Most of my friends have died. I´ve booked a hotel room in Shinagawa, an outer suburb of the city. I study the gardens from the fifteenth floor, sit on the bed and lay out my plans for dying. On the desk lit with an ornate lamp, I place an envelop of emu feathers. They are grey and black ... very fine, receptive of every breath. I intend to give them to a woman. If she will see me. Oh, I am desperate to see her, to meet again this rave woman who is capable of saving me! But I shall not ring tonight. It is too late. For now it is enough to be almost together.
I walk to the Ginza, have supper in a restaurant atop block of department stores, and buy a new kimono. I forgot to pack the one I owned , probably because I decided I needed only a small suitcase, an overnight satchel which contained an essential item. How it slipped past customs I will never know, the officer bowing a little lower than usual. Not so much as a glance from him at this slender, curved knife which I lay before me sheathed in its wooden scabbard; not so much as a quick flip through these weighty pages bound in red cord. I realised only much later how suspicious I must have looked.
Push it open a little. A distinctive hand; the hand of ...well, equivocation. Ha! The phone.
No, I do not want to be disturbed. I am not related to them. No. Tell them no.
They have the wrong person. Thank them; but no.
They are sending me up flowers nevertheless. And a bottle of champagne. You see, everywhere I am known, but not known.
Let me make some introductions. Cut the cord with this suicidal knife. Sit on the floor.
There, and out the other side. This pain; this position. I had iron in the soul then. Having survived the war like a cockroach.
Victor Stepper.
You want to know who he was? I wrote some notes. These are but pasty words, a crumbling vellum, a degenerating cerebellum. I´d made a practise of never writing. Dirty business really. Difficult to destroy once down. I thought I´d coded it ... but he, oh, he loved to write. Lived for it and knew he was living dangerously. It was that kind of a job. I pencilled some notes in the margins. Chronicled change in those times, just as he did in that Showa period, when woman wore furs over their kimonos ... and secret things beneath. His obsession.
East and west.
See what I mean? He loved Japanese women. He liked them particularly when they came to his office in the Domei Building, when he would lock the door and and then seduce them on the desk while they pored over his notes, and sometimes ... sometimes his manuscript was filled with ... well ... I find myself wandering by a carp pond in the hotel gardens, my blood pressure up, leaning dizzyingly from a curved and slippery bridge.
Don´t ask why. I´ll tell you a bit about him. Just a little. My life too? It was pallid beside his. Shhh. The walls have ears. Japanese ones. After all, my cousin built this hotel to which they swarm in buses from elsewhere. Then they alight in single file and follow the leader. I still admire their wonderful organisation. Teamwork. I betrayed them, you see. Betrayed their trust. Betrayed their fresh faces; the whiteness of their garments. I was a Westerner before the term became fashionable ... and if I´ve succeeded in staying such, it can only be yet another failure of nerve.
But I´ve come this far.
Let me open this file which has been so assiduously preserved.

“You Must Remember This” (short story)

He unwraps it.
Sandwiches, he is thinking, can make you homesick, for the order and taste of the familiar, flavoured devotion of the one who made them, products of thought and effort and love and everything from humble gatherings in modest kitchens to spicy leftovers from another time, another place, and so he begins eating his sandwiches though he isn’t really hungry, thinking of these things, eating them half-way through digging the grave and the flies were already settling on the dog’s tongue hanging out purple, settled on the eyes sunken and clouded, the grave already filling with water and there was a wind now, stirring the buttery broom and he tastes the mud on his hands which is now on the sandwiches, mud churned by the swollen creek, while he goes through his daily exercises, trying to remember definitions, mnemonics, going through the alphabet: anamnesis – a life before this life – a case history of diseases – and he feels homesick for other places though he doesn’t why, because this is already home where there is life and there is death, in the mud, in the rain, in the sandwiches he eats.
He is thinking about something, he can’t quite catch the thought by its tail as it slips into images and drizzle and the time they slipped into Macau on the steamer, over the oily waters of the South China Sea and the Pearl River, his mother and he, the steamer shadowed by small gunboats flying red flags, just the two of them standing by the port rail and she staring back towards the stern, the water looking greener and calmer now while before it was grey and sickly and rough, when out at sea the brass spittoons in the lounge, the ones filled with flared butts and matches and yellow liquid like tea, were overturning onto the wooden floor and people were vomiting while the steamer bucked and ploughed its way through the chop which didn’t affect him at all, for he was intent on firing paper pellets into the water with a rubber band, he, Spitfire pilot, shooting at the running lights, at the fishing boats, at surprised lovers in tarpaulin-covered lifeboats smelling of rubber, at a thin man with thick glasses who was exhibiting himself, parting his overcoat like twin curtains in a matinée his dongle a Vienna sausage in the sandwich of his undershorts every time the little girls ran past red-faces, and now maybe his mother was looking back at him, disturbed as well, dressed in her white dress and white hat, telling him once again, because he was only eight but had something wrong with him, some attention deficit, inability to remember things for long, fokus, do his maths sums, telling him that they were here on holiday, the steamer bumping into old tyres on the starboard side while they were alone on this side and he wanted to rush over and watch the man collect the hemp with a hooked pole, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, the Portuguese officials waiting in red braid, the steamer bumping again as he dropped his sandwiches into the water, wanting to leave things behind.
Perhaps there was something wrong with him, to have taken him out of school term ... each day in class he had vomited from homesickness and even his mother didn’t want him at home and his father beat him for truanting, for not being capable of the breadth of memory, and even then, even then, he was homesick, and now, to go on holidays, the Hotel Bella Vista looming white, with white terraces and tessellations and balustrades and white-suited waiters and his mother in a glare of white in a feverish dream, and these were the things that were rewarding him for allowing his feelings to persevere, like the persistent drizzle, the endless wash of scummy water on the stone steps, the touting pedicab bells and the slow and turgid swell of smudged and misplaced words he put into a small notebook in mimicry of his mother, imitating the intake of her breath, of her sight whenever she paused, and then holding his breath whenever he wrote, and wrote only as long as he could hold his breath, his fokus, memory, attention.
It was warm inside and when they unpacked he was allowed to order lunch and thought it miraculous, those endless rounds of triple-decker club sandwiches, so professionally toasted, and he was allowed to drink coffee and call the waiter and afterwards to watch other children chasing a monkey in the rain across a patch of rooftop lawn.
That evening there was music, the band practised at nostalgia and normally his father and mother would dance across the floor but his mother and he sat together and tapped their feet and presently an old man in a white dinner-jacket stood up and asked his mother for a dance, but she declined, smiling graciously.
The next morning it was still overcast so they went for a tour with hotel umbrellas, climbing in and out of covered pedicabs as though out of stage-coaches he’d seen in the movies, though there were no horses and they said the riders died by forty, being out in all weathers pushing pedals and eating little and smoking opium a great deal, so that by time they reached the observatory on the old Monte fortress the man was sweating and looked ill, smiling at them when they went up to look out over China and the bay where Dutch ships were blown out of the water by the Jesuits in 1622, and the boy took out his little lead plane and held it diving and strafing the ancient turrets, the Dinky Toy given to him by Jimmy Johnson who wore an RAF pilot’s uniform and who gave him medals and wings and the Dumpy Book of Aircraft, making him memorise silhouettes, so he knew the model he held in his hand was a Hawker Hunter, and Jimmy Johnson had a moustache and smoked 555´s which he drew from a yellow and gold tin and drove an MG, but none of this prevented the boy from pushing the plane down the gaping mouth of an iron cannon, hearing it slide down irretrievably.
That afternoon it poured, so they stayed indoors, his mother writing letters and he wandered down corridors sliding here and there on the wooden floors and went up and down staircase until he was well and truly lost in another wing of the giant hotel and on a carpeted stairwell heard the whining of a little dog and wandering further, saw a pup approach, eyes suppliant, tail wagging, dragging its belly across the floor, and he patted it and played with it and loved it immediately but then it peed on him and then did doo-doo on the carpet and when a door opened, ran inside and he hard the door being locked and another open and this old lady came out, saw the turd and shouted that he was a dirty little boy and screamed for the concierge, trying to hold onto his ear, but he twisted loose and ran as fast as he could out into the street and loitered along the sea wall on the Praia Grande, fished from his pocket another little plane, a Shooting Star this time, silver, with fuel tanks in the wings, and dropped it into the sea.
They spent almost two weeks in Macaau and had exhausted the sight: the Protestant cemetery, the Sao Domingos Church, the Guia Fortress, the Luís de Camo?s Museum, the ruins of Sao Paulo, the home of Dr Sun Yat-Sen, even the asylum, where people led each other by the hand and there was a blonde woman who coughed a lot and smelled of eau-de-Cologne and then suddenly when he turned and turned back, the lawn was deserted as though lunch had been served elsewhere an there had been a stampede, slippers and newspapers and glasses left behind, his mother deep in conversation with the blonde doctor who had now put on her white coat and he was glad to leave then, and even his mother became happier when it was almost time to get back on the steamer, but once on board he became more depressed, thinking of school and of how he would have to feign illness only to arrive home and be surprised by Jimmy Johnson, who would give him another little plane while his mother made lunch, a plane he had in his hand when the steamer finally took them off, a Sabre he cherished, but which he now tossed into the churning water at the stern, leaving everything behind and only had his breath which he held for as long as he could, in which to stamp these things in his memory and if held long enough would make him float off, light as a balloon.
When they arrived home his father was drinking in the half-light of the courtyard and he said Come in, Come in, as though they were total strangers and he seemed happy though shadows were falling on his face and his mother didn’t say anything and then his father didn’t say any more and they went into a silent period for weeks while he returned to school an became silent as well, because he couldn’t see anything and because he couldn’t see anything, began to feel himself choking and overcome by breathless-ness, the teachers calling the school doctor who said he oughtn’t to be left alone, but at recess he walked out if the gates and climbed the hill behind the school and scrambled up a kind of concrete embankment and stood on the edge of fifty-foot drop, stood looking into an empty reservoir where two schoolgirls had died the previous summer, hand in hand, washed into the storm-water drain as the reservoir filled in the heavy rains and nobody knew whether it was an accident or suicide and he stood there for a long time an then went home and his father was angry because the school had rung and his father began cuffing him on the ear and yelling at him, though he didn’t seem to be hearing him, his voice sounding a long way off as though from the bottom of a reservoir, his father cuffing his ear and then gathering up all the model planes, some given to him by Jimmy Johnson, and threw them out the window and watched the cars crunch over them, saying to him over and over again that that Johnson fellow had been transferred to West Germany and that now they would be able to get on with their lives and that he hoped they had all learned their lesson.
Then his father began making sandwiches for him to take to school and he ate them and felt good and he felt strong and thought how he was getting through things.

Forty years later he was sitting on the bank eating his Vegemite sandwiches tasting of mud watching the wind coming up the creek when he heard the Nomad eightseater heading for Sydney above the clouds, knowing his wife was on it and got back to burying the dog.
She hated that dog, said it was old and smelly and cancerous and it ought to be put down at the earliest opportunity, but it was that dog who came and lay beside him when he took walks to the shack to sit on the old bed by the rusty freezer to begin his drinking earlier and earlier and he knew she wasn’t angry at the dog, but at the bottles and the mess and especially at the way he couldn’t remember anything and did nothing about it.
Then one day the dog got into the creek and couldn’t get out so he had to grab it by the collar and drag it up the bank and it couldn’t stand up, having been in the water for a long time, his wife saying it was either that dog or her and his grief was that bad he couldn’t breathe at all and knew from the past that without breath there was a kind of separation.
For a while he tried to remember things and he really tried hard, but in the end he didn’t want to remember anymore. He put the dog in the pit and filled it, thinking briefly of the touch on his arm made by the dog’s flicking ear just before he shot it. He filled the pit with mud.
He couldn’t breathe.
He went back up to the house and went from room to room and couldn’t find any place where he wanted to rest. Nothing upon which he could fokus. He drank a bottle of red wine, taking slow sips and refilling the thin glass only half-way and then half-way again, walking around the room and then from room to room. The rain grew heavier on the roof and he thought how the dog’s grave was filling with water, dark and closed and heavy and he thought of the plane in which his wife had left. In his separation he felt one side of himself lightened, relieved of something, maybe of love and death, and he wanted to leave everything behind, at the last minute remembering that if his wife had left him sandwiches, then at least, she would probably be back.
But he didn’t know if that necessarily followed.